Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Return fire

It was thirty years ago, and Daniel Boulud was upset. The food for table 12 had sat in the window too long. He yelled for a runner. No one. He yelled for a server. No one. The lobster was turning color. The bouillon was growing a skin. He yelled. One of the young servers pretended not to hear him and headed for the kitchen door with empty hands. Daniel picked the lobster flesh up off the serving tray and launched it at the server's own body, shouting "YOU PICKUP" as the bug carcass careened in mid air. Upon receiving the lobster shell somewhere inches from his head, the young server wasted no time in dispatching it, sending the glistening lobster on a quick red eye return flight back towards the cook's line and Daniel's own kitchen whites.

That young server was Daniel Johnnes, and today he manages a global wine program spanning some of the world's greatest cellars for the aforementioned chef, Daniel Boulud. See my snooth sommelier video interview with Daniel Johnnes here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A small question

from the excellent bonsai collection of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden

I find this bonsai enchanting. I also find it to be completely unbalanced. Completely. There is nothing balanced about the composition of this form, at least to my eye. And yet I adore it. I think about this sometimes when people say that "balance" is the key to great wine. Would this plant be even half as beautiful if it were straight and tall and symetrical? I ask you this.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

As we wash the rice our fingers might touch every grain

An 18th century screen depicting chapters from the Tale of Genji. I am especially drawn to the lower right hand passage, in which surface and clouds seem to join for a moment. Click on the screen to enlarge the view.

How does a single surface evoke a story containing many dimensions? In the case of the screen above, gold leaf has been inlaid into the construction in the form of a richly hued mist. The golden mist seemingly opens up to reveal six different scenes from a story. This golden array both references a transient natural form and provides indelibly crafted decorative splendor. The sense is given of a view down through golden clouds, and into openings teeming with significance for the narrative. The golden inlay, which has been laid flat against the panels of the screen, has created a sense of perspective: we assume a lively world under these clouds. And there is a feeling given that if we were to leave just for a moment and then return to this screen that we might see different views as the golden clouds shifted.

I don't know of a perfectly apt metaphor for the sense wine tannins give to the taster, but such cloud forms might come close. In young wines they provide a structure that throws the other elements into relief, while at the same time implying flavor sensations closed off for now. With time, we suspect, they might shift and reveal other chapters of the story. Or not. Sometimes I recall that the original Tale of Genji ends abruptly. Mid-sentence.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Palm Beach Story

Mr. Spruce once returned a vodka on the rocks because he said the bottle had been open too long. He said you could taste the difference and this had gone bad. This is a true story.

Mr. and Mrs. Spruce would come in often, maybe five times a week. They always sat at the corner table by the window, and they never ordered more than a glass of wine. Their special requests were legendary. "No extra salt" was just the beginning of a soignee document that ran the length of a forearm. James, the waiter who most often took care of the couple, had a killer impersonation that he would pull out after shift: "James," he would intone "bring me the cooked rib of a 12 year old boy, simply roasted potatoes with lemon, stewed greens, and NO extra salt." I avoided their table as I might avoid a school bully intent on stealing my lunch money.

One afternoon Mr. Spruce had a wine request. Where is the sommelier? You are the sommelier? Yes, I am the sommelier. Well, we had a wonderful wine at our club the other day, and I don't see it on your list here. We want the Lewis Cellars Chardonnay Napa Valley 2001. Mrs. Spruce really enjoyed it with her meal. The Lewis Napa Valley 2001. See what you can do. Yes Sir, Mr. Spruce.

The manager pulled me aside, "just make sure we get him what he wants, I don't want to hear about this all week and all month that we couldn't." No problem.

I called the distributor: the Lewis is all sold out. You know how it is with that wine, it comes in and it goes out. Allocations are tough right now. We don't have any more. Unless you'd like the red, we have some of the red.

I called the winery: Randy was sympathetic. Gee, I'd love to help you out here, but we don't have any more 2001 at all, not of the Napa. Would you like some 2002? I could have a case sent out special for you. Well yes, the new vintage, thank you that would be great!

Two weeks later and the wine was in the cellar. And Mr. Spruce was at the table. Did you find my wine? YES Sir, Mr. Spruce, and I paraded the bottle to his table, triumphant. Ah! Here you are Mr. Spruce! Hmm, let me see. The Lewis Cellars Chardonnay, good. Let me see the other side of the bottle. Hmm, the Napa Valley, good. But this is 2002. Where is the 2001? Oh, I see. They didn't have the 2001. Couldn't get the 2001. I see. Couldn't get the 2001. I see. Couldn't get it.

Mr. Spruce drank only vodka that day.

A few days later Mr. Spruce arrived at the restaurant. "I'd like to speak with Levi." I went to the host stand. This would be bad. "I have a gift for you, Levi, something I've got for you." And he handed me a brown paper bag. Well, uh, thank you, Mr. Spruce. That's nice of you. He left. And inside of that bag was a bottle of Lewis Cellars Chardonnay Napa Valley 2001. And just like that Mr. Spruce had taught me a great lesson about trying, about giving people what they ask for, and about sweating what seems to be the small stuff. Bringing someone something different than they asked for isn't bringing them what they asked for.

After this I looked after the Spruces as I might an uncle in my own family. He had, I came to find out, escaped the Holocaust and although he had achieved great wealth, he had arrived in America penniless. Much later we had lunch together, before I left for New York. A sort of goodbye. "We will miss you," he said. "We were glad to have met you, and of course we wish you great luck, but we will miss you." I'll be honest with you, it meant a lot to me that he said that.

Mr. Spruce died about a week after that conversation. It had been easy to forget his advanced age because of the strength of his personality. His wife called to cancel all of their future standing reservations. It was something like 300.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Significant Flowers

click on the image for an enlarged view

When I look at the illustrations from this old book I do not recognize anything at all. There is not one flower or shrub that I can say, I know what that is, I've seen that before. Which is a reminder to me that we interpret what we see, and what we taste, through the formal languages of our time in history. I express what I taste in the same way that you do, and in this way we understand each other. But I wonder for the future. How will they in that time say "floral?"

Friday, February 17, 2012


In the old growth forests, sometimes it is the trees that have fallen over that are the most prepossessing. The green moss reaches around them as the emerald fingers take hold, and the massive roots, pulled from the ground, still cleave their silvan earth to them in a clasp sometimes as big as a person. Sometimes bigger.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The edge is the frame, not the finish.

The right hand edge of One: Number 31, 1950 completed in 1950 by Jackson Pollock (who died in 1956). You might notice how the curving lines of paint weave back in on each other rather than direct out towards the frame.
I've heard it said that the length of what we refer to rather fatally as "the finish" is perhaps the single best indicator of greatness in a wine. That a wine with a long finish is a great wine, and that a great wine has a long finish. It would seem to these commentators that how long the experience lasts is the most important matter. And I flatly disagree. I don't see the finish as the end of the wine, I see it as the frame. And it should throw the rest of the flavors in relief.

A bitter finish can be a wonderful flourish. As in a Barolo. A lifted finish can be a mouthwatering finish. As in a Sangiovese. A dry finish can bring perfect, defining resonance to the sweet fruit of a Chenin Blanc or Riesling.

A good finish does not exist by itself. It might act as a seesaw, counterbalancing the flavors that came before, or it might act as a balloon, bringing up and giving lift to those flavors. A wine might act as a swing, with the body sent curving through the air with legs held out straight. The finish retraces the swing's arc, the motion pulling you back and past where you started from, to a place you cannot see.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Getting out of the weeds

Being in the weeds is a state of mind. There is so much going on, so many tables asking for this or that, that you start to become confused, rushed, and unable to prioritize. I have a lot of familiarity with this predicament, and in fact I have a recurring dream where I am on roller skates and waiting tables in an active freeway, dodging in between cars to get to my customers, each of whom are sitting at a long picnic table with 100 or so of their friends. I have in this dream a feeling of helpless frustration. That is the weeded feeling.

There is a lot of sound counsel regarding weed prevention that a manager will tell you in the pre-service meetings, such as know your menu, ready your mise en place, remember to smile, and ask for help. This post is about what the manager won't tell you, from someone who has been there and back quite often.

So, you are in the weeds, now what?

One. Work Geographically. Don't run back and forth across the room, you will waste time. Take care of everything that needs to happen in one area, then move to the next area. If you work out of the weeds in this way you will find that you will become calm faster, because this is a natural way of setting priorities. Do what needs to be done in the area around you first. Then move to the next place, knowing that you won't have to return for a few minutes to the customers behind you.

Two. Don't Speed Up. Don't do it. If you rush around, you are going to knock in to people, things, food. You are going to look nervous. You are going to break stuff. Don't rush around. Rather, control the situation once you arrive. Talk loud enough so that people hear you and respond. Make recommendations rather than wait for orders. Anticipate requests. Before you leave a table, take a last look at it, to see what that table may need. Let the other people on your service team know what you will do next, so that they can do something else instead. Be confident and poised.

Three. The Wine that you have in stock tastes a lot better than the Wine that is 86'd. Seriously. Think about what a particular order is going to mean. Is there a chilled bottle? Is there a bottle upstairs? Is this a wine where the cork often crumbles and takes a long time to get out? Have this sort of conversation with yourself before you recommend the bottle to a table. Remember, if you recommend a wine to somebody and then you can't find it, that just makes you look doubly foolish to the person who was relying on you.

Four. Sing Yourself a Song. I mean it. Sing quietly to yourself as you walk around the dining room. Sing a song that you already know quite well. This will literally help you regain your rhythm, and your pacing, which is what being weeded destroys. Being terribly weeded comes with the terrifying sense that you don't know what will happen next, that you are not in control, but in fact you do know what the next word to this song is, because you have heard it a thousand times before.

Which song should you be humming? Well, it is up to every individual to answer that question for themselves, but the classic song of triumph over the weeds will surely always remain this one:

I myself am greatly partial to:

As well as:

And I guess I wouldn't be a part of my generation if I didn't also like:

But you might sing something by Eminem, DMX, or maybe Whitney Houston if you are a female or just sentimental. Basically, whatever you workout to will work out fine.

I knew a guy who used to wear an Iron Maiden concert t-shirt under his work clothes. He told me once that when things got rough on the job, he liked to remember something that he really enjoyed, to go to that spot. Wearing the t-shirt was what he did to keep that with him. That guy was a smart dude.

Five. Remember that this will end. Maybe the worst part of being weeded is that it can seem like there is no escape. Like you are never going to get out of this situation. You are trapped. This feeling can lead people to abruptly walk out of their jobs and quit. They want to escape and they don't know how. I actually advise people in the weeds to look at the time. Just look at what time it is and then think to yourself, I have 2 hours until this shift is over. In 2 hours, no more customers are coming through that door, and I will be done with this night. Two hours. I can do 2 hours. That's all it is, and then I will be through this. This trick is even more effective during lunch shifts, which are generally shorter anyway.

And those are my tips, because who has time to read through a longer list than that when they are in the weeds?